Tagged: Teaching

Which is more difficult: world’s toughest sport or teaching?

 more difficult

With the Rio Olympics and school term in full swing, I poured a glass or red and asked myself: Which one is more difficult: the world’s toughest sport or … teaching?

For the record, I played THE sport for 20 years, 15 of them at the highest international level, coached it at that level for another 5. I have also been a teacher for 15 years. If you want to see my playing/coaching as well as teaching/education credentials I would be happy to expand. In short, it would be reasonable to say I know enough about both to attempt to answer the question. I do so using five categories, defined by a suitable dictionary definition and stated in each case.

Pressure (a sense of stressful urgency caused by having too many demands on one’s time or resources)

In the sport – the kind of pressure in the definition is incredibly intense, focused, but then again fairly organised and usually does not last very long. The battle(s) last seconds, minutes, hour(s) at most. Sure, the lead up is often interpreted as ‘pressure’ but that’s not the thing in the heat of the battle of either centre-forward or fast break or man-down defence that you tell your grandkids about one day and for which you are known for.

Mention “sense of stressful urgency caused by having too many demands on one’s time or resources” to me as a teacher and I’ll thank you for putting just about any day I spend at school in a sentence. The ‘urgency’ part could erupt any moment, the demands on me by students, colleagues, admin, parents and beyond are too many to count and always too many to fully attend to. They are also constant, never ending it seems. As for intense, telling a child in tears and standing in front of you that you can’t help them because you have to help someone else, putting on a calm face discovering the lesson you’ve planned with twenty teens wielding sharp tools is going to fall apart because some unforeseen event and you have to come up with a great Plan B (and C, and D …) on the spot, copping abuse from a parent or their progeny while ‘acting adult’ are just a few of the countless examples of getting the butterflies in your stomach going like crazy. You rarely ‘nail it’ and there is a sense of constant triage, rarely one of systematic, orderly, heavily invested in yet predictable progress and feedback you get by scoring that goal.

Decision-making (action of process of making important decisions)

If you have never heard a sports commentator hailing a player or coach for their ‘decision-making ability’ please listen out for it. In a dynamic sport like water polo, decisions are made frequently. Position, ball location, shot clock, score, momentum, shooter, tactics are just some of the factors that a water polo player regularly takes into account throughout the game, more so when they are directly involved in the action. “Seeing a step (or two) ahead” is a hallmark of a great player. The playmakers are a valuable commodity for this very reason and their fast-processing ability, borne with and out of experience.

Just how often does a teacher make a decision? According to research quoted by the highly respected Dr Larry Cuban  – one every 0.7 seconds! Yes, you read that right. Just like elite athletes, they mix the routine with the unexpected. Non-stop. They, well we, have to ‘read the play’ and make decisions that are sometimes more akin to chess grand masters, eight or more steps ahead, just to bring a lesson to an agreeable end after one or more (un)expected, teacheable or otherwise, events. And that’s every day, not just during the weekend league game.

Endurance (the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way, the capacity of something to last or to withstand wear and tear)

Water polo players have to bear a lot and play at their peak of mental and physical capacities for an hour a game. Add to this the gruelling training day in day out that makes games seem easy, if possible at all, and you can’t possibly be a wimp. You simply would not make it. You would eliminate yourself and/or have all the excuses before not making the grade. Bear the wear and tear for about twenty or so years, if lucky maybe ten of those at the top level.

As a teacher, unlike my sporting career, the toughest years were probably the first few years. As the aquatic pun would have it, I was “thrown in the deep end” and I had to swim. I had to withstand the storms of volatile teens, unfamiliar content, new surrounds, endless curricular changes, difficult staffrooms and my own demons of insecurity. I’ve had to read articles screaming that “if only you [teachers] were better our kids would be better off” while knowing very little of what I do will make a lick of difference for all the structural issues that are the real issue but one too hard to address. And please don’t think life has gotten all peachy now with a few years of teaching under my belt. My elephant skin got thicker, my ears more attuned, my head wiser but my heart no less aching seeing the issues, especially those relating to inequities affecting those in my care.

Skill (the ability to do something well; expertise)

Breeding a top class water polo player is a messy, risky proposition. The genes, the environment, the systematic development, the web of career-defining moments has to align just right (and with a dose of luck) to produce a top level player. Very, very few reach it there. There, the elite make it look easy. They have the range of skills, from swimming, shooting, blocking, defending, turning, reading the play and more. Yet their expertise is beyond the mere technical ability. They seem to live and breathe their game. Youngsters and others try to copy, emulate, inspired by them, only to discover theirs is not a bag of skills to master but their own path or rather their own web of moments that can’t be simply copied, cloned or somehow reproduced to the same effect.

If you have been in the teaching game over the past few years, you will have noticed the intensification of attempts to define ‘good teaching’, see what skills and attributes it’s made of and then come up with a formula to follow in (re)producing it in both the new graduates and practicing teachers. Frameworks, standards, instrumental measurements are attempts to reduce the irreducible, contextual act of (good) teaching that is far, far more complex than any Olympic final in water polo or any sport for that matter. Teachers are increasingly expected to be a competent, expert even presenter, negotiator, mediator, public speaker, manager, counsellor, coach, mentor, technician, organiser, nurse, researcher, statistician and more. And while the range of skills and abilities demanded is expanding for both elite athletes and teachers, the latter win hands down.

Toughness (ability to absorb energy and deform without fracturing)

The elite water polo players are a tough bunch. They may not carry the bruises of various football codes, crashes on the roads or falls of equipment but they certainly know what ‘cracking under pressure’ means in a physical and mental sense. I for one had to play (no, win!) a game where my entire next year’s salary and that of my coach and teammates depended on it (we won…just). Elite athletes see on TV and the ones you don’t are under immense pressure to perform. Deform without fracturing. And they can only do that for a few years.  

Speaking of deforming and fracturing, the figures for teachers’ careers are starting to look scarily more like the short-lived careers of elite athletes. Not because they ‘get old and slow’ and lose the athletic edge but simply because they get bruised and drained by the emotional highs and lows, the expectations, shaped largely by societal expectations but (soon) internalised as their own, incessant demands on their mental and physical capacities and more. The statistics are scary. In Australia, not unlike in USA, UK and similar environments, close to half of the teaching graduates leave the profession within the first five years. The tough survive.  

So finally, which one is more difficult: toughest sport in the world or teaching? I have to disappoint you here – there is no clear winner. The point of this exercise was not to actually have a clear winner (good for you if you have decided for one or the other though). They are fundamentally different in their purpose: performance, winning and beating the rest versus learning and building capacity in others. There are too many variables to come near any commonly agreed upon decision. The point of the exercise was however to appreciate the many similarities they share. If you are going to pick the finer points and argue technicalities – you’ve missed the point of this exercise.

To finish off this little exploration, I would like to ask you to do the following few things:

Appreciate the effort of not just the athletes you see on TV but of all those who bust their guts every day in their chosen sport. You will never see the vast, vast majority of them but that does not diminish their endeavour. Most don’t do it for the fame and money because, contrary to popular belief, there rarely is a lot of fame and money in sport.

Appreciate the effort of your child’s teachers, many of whom are akin to the elite athletes you cheer for on screen. Except they want your child to do the winning, not themselves. That would be their biggest reward. Fame and money? Please, don’t.

Do not pity neither athletes nor teachers in their difficulties. We do this by choice. Acknowledge, respect but do not pity us. We love what we do, as impossible as that may sound sometimes even to ourselves in the doldrums of struggle. 

Finally, whether it’s some player who missed that final shot or a teacher who somehow did not spot the beautiful talent of your child – the last thing they wanted to do is to do that deliberately. Understand before you blame.

To my student

tough times

I had a tough day at school. Like many others, like many of my colleagues around the school, around the world. I wrote a letter to the four kids with whom I’ve struggled with for over a year now. It was more a catharsis for me than any serious attempt to change some very set patterns. The more I wrote, the more I felt the need to cut the words. At the end – these lines emerged:

I am at your service

I am a gift to you society has paid for

(but I am not a thing and I am not yours)

I don’t ask for or need you to like me

(I have other people to do that)

I care more about the person you become than the grade you achieve

I know things you don’t and I’m happy to share them with you

 

I also know that nobody wants to be trashed, abused and ignored

You don’t

I don’t

Your teacher

Image via lifehack.org

First thing he has ever built

My Principal said she “needed a good story today”. I sent her a pic, here is the short story. You might as well read it too.

Meet Dennis*, an often disengaged 13 year old at our school.

He is in my woodwork class. He missed a couple of weeks at the start of term but has been regular, especially last couple of weeks. He designed, marked out, cut, hand planed, sanded, drilled, glued, clamped, nailed and polished that toolbox. He said it was the “first time he has ever built something”. He mucked up a few corners, cut things a bit short, split a bit of wood but he persisted. He did not give up. He fussed about sanding it “just right”. He used power tools in a safe way at all times. He reminded himself in front of me to put his safety glasses back on. He helped me clean up, charge tool batteries. He helped a kid bang the box together when the kid whacked their finger and couldn’t do it. He told a friend to stop mucking around. He had the biggest smile on his face when done.

He made his first thing at the age of 13 and thought it was really cool. His reflection sheet reads like this (I scribed for him, verbatim, in a busy, noisy workshop):

– Good things about this project? Why?  It was cool because it’s the first time I built something.

– Worst things? Why? The handle, it was too big, then I had to cut it but it didn’t work.

– Most challenging, tricky part? Why? Banging the nails because I whacked my finger.

– Easiest part? Why? Putting the side bits on because it was easy.

– Three things you did well? Used the sander well, used the hammer well, used the drill well.

– One thing you want to improve? Measure properly next time! (and you should have seen a smile on our faces as we both mucked up the measuring part)

He made me feel vindicated to (re)start the workshop at our school. He gives me the energy to push to include making physical things a regular part of what we do at our school.

Nothing ‘21st century’ about it, please. Just “give us [teachers] the tools and we’ll finish the job”.

Happy Easter all.

*Not his real name. But if you have worked at our school over the past couple of years you’ll know him.

Best teacher

Elise is a dear colleague. She has been teaching (only) for two years (English and ESL courses) and is one of those teachers that make me want to push for some kind of merit system of pay and/or recognition. I could go on about Elise here but suffice to say – she is an absolutely brilliant teacher in many, many ways. Most of all, she respects and believes in kids she teaches.

During a conversation this afternoon, she told me a story how a student (often labelled by others as a ‘troublemaker’, ‘tough to teach’ … you know those, right?) challenged a poorly prepared and rude practicum teacher she had recently supervised. Here is the scene and the lines (abbreviated but the gist is there):

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Grow a Moodle

moonflower seed after soaking overnight

I have been thinking about and scouring the net for ‘best’ models of trying to get teachers to use Moodle for some time. I have tried a few things myself with mixed success until the most obvious thing hit me.

There are gigabytes of info on ‘growing gap between the teachers and students in using technology’. And what do we mostly do? We get ‘experts’ (adults) and fellow teachers teaching the newbies, reluctant or otherwise. Yet the biggest resource and pool of experts sits right in front of our nose – our students!

Talk about focusing on solutions not the problem…

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10 minutes ahead

Oh, the orbital language of ‘21st century skills’ and ‘leadership’.

If you are an educator keen on using technology and wanting others to join you and benefit from it, don’t try to get them to move into “21st century” – just get them to move 10 minutes ahead to the point where they have just learned something simple and useful that will work in their class.

Use the gamers approach to learning – easy entry, easy win then level up and try again. Move them as a colleague, with empathy (“walk in their shoes”) not sympathy (“oh, you poor thing”).

Dean Groom tells it better – thanks mate for this gem. You can tell it below.

(A short blog post never felt better)

You Yankee bastard

home_syd_1966

A few days ago, Phyllis Zimbler Miller, LA-based author of the novel Mrs Lieutenant about the lives of wives of officers in Vietnam War contacted me (via Twitter via Daniel Needlestone from UK!) and expressed interest in the We Remember Vietnam War project I am running with my Year 10 class. She asked me to write a guest post on her blog for her mostly US audience to raise awareness not only about our project but about the involvement of Australians in Vietnam. Here is what I wrote…I hope I got the start right?

You Yankee bastard

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Just do it

octopus arm
This Thursday I had the privilege of hearing one of my dearest and friendliest, uber-connected locals Sue Waters giving a keynote on PLN at the EDNA workshop. Great stuff – she managed to bamboozle the audience and have them eating out of her hands at the same time! After her gig we shared a quiet half an hour and the word got onto people who just talk and ponder about change instead of getting their hands dirty. Right on!

Here is my “getting hands dirty” bit, the reason you hear about it is because I am asking for your help and your digital-to-flesh tentacles.

This term, my Year 10 Society & Environment class is looking at Vietnam War as a broad topic. After quite a bit of discussion, brainstorming and even arguments with and among the 22-strong, very ‘mixed ability’ (love a nasty euphemism, don’t you?) class, we thought it would be a good idea to do something that would actually matter beyond “a grade, a tick, and a move on”. So we got ourselves into the national ANZAC School Awards competition. Of course, it wouldn’t be Mr Lasic who planted the idea that we may want to gun for the ‘best use of technology’ category would it 🙂

The class lapped up the challenge. I have NEVER seen them this motivated, keen and engaged. As I write this, I have kids, some of whom who don’t have computers at home (that’s right, call them digital native hey?) going to public library or staying at home to fool around and research the background info CD I had provided. Curious about what we are doing? Here is the link, all explained there – http://weremember.wikispaces.com/

So what is it that we need help with? Put simply, we are creating a digital mash-up map in Google Earth with personal stories about the time of Vietnam War – a mix of primary and secondary source historical data.

If you remember the period and/or if you know someone who lived in that period (particularly in Australia or Vietnam) or know a ‘connector’ who knows others – we would love it if you could tell us one positive and one negative experience related about the (time of and after) Vietnam War.

How?

Go straight to the simple form (full link, you can copy if you like)

http://spreadsheets.google.com/viewform?formkey=cjVfSVJfOTQ2cnd0dGJCY1FEV0NBbEE6MA

OR email the class at weremember09@gmail.com

OR leave a comment below

Now here comes the tentacles part…!

Please pass the message/link to project on in a true Web 2.0 manner (but avoid spam of course) – blog, Twitter, wiki, email. Let’s not forget the old phone and face-to-face either here…

We have already had a few people responding – Roger Pryor (he has already blogged it!), “cpaterso” (a reciprocal Twitter follower and a generous teacher from Sydney whose full name I don’t even know yet (!) and he has already provided some hugely useful personal contacts and suggestions), to name just a couple… within the first ‘public’ day.

This isn’t the first time I am asking for such a thing I know (thank you Charlie Roy, you are a superstar!). Hopefully, I have or (will have) clocked up enough good karma to see the human web in action and show what people can do with technology these days so it matters. So…just do it!

A big please and an even bigger thank you all from me and my bunch of 14-year olds.

One sentence

Good news travels fast. ‘Sticky’ ideas even faster.

In her recent comments, fellow teacher and moodler Mary Cooch (known also as @moodlefairy) mentioned how the staff at their school spend a couple of minutes of their weekly meetings talking about their use of Moodle in the classroom. I loved the idea and in the brief email exchange that followed hinted that I will try to use it here at our school too.

This afternoon, I had a cryptic staff meeting agenda item called ‘Share’.

When I got my turn to speak, I simply asked:

‘Could you please share ONE thing or strategy you have found Moodle useful for in your classroom.”

Silence. Tick, tock, tick, tock – 15 seconds.

Then it opened. What followed was just about the best 8 minutes of my three years at this school – 10 short stories, 10 people, 10 different uses, 10 different skill levels. Genuine, specific, relevant, encouraging … and more we haven’t heard because of the crammed agenda.

As I write this, an email popped into my inbox from a colleague Aaron. This is the last sentence from it:

“What took place in today’s staff meeting is exceptionally rare, so from one colleague to another, well done”

I find myself happy and sad at the same time.

Sad? Because, as Aaron says, it is exceptionally rare. Making such things standard practice won’t change a few staff meetings – it will change the profession we are in.

Can you teach me Moodle?

Thumb

This afternoon a staff member walked up to me and said: “Tomaz, I have been meaning to see you about Moodle. You really need to teach me about how to use it.”

This of course is music to my ears as the resident moodler. But then I returned what is now becoming a standard line and a sure tickler: “I couldn’t possibly!”

She stood there stunned but polite. Huh, did I get her attention.

I did continue:”I would love to have a chat with you about Moodle and show you around but first – have a look in our Sandpit what Moodle is [the “Moodle explained with Lego” clip] and then the sort of things you can do with it [the ‘How can Moodle change a school] clip(s)]. This will give you a broad idea about Moodle before starting to poke around. When done, come up to me with a classroom problem and we’ll solve it together, step by step. How does that sound to you?”

“See you on Monday at the workshop!” was the immediate and enthusiastic reply.

Too often we approach teaching of things like software applications with a “these are the features, click here, click there…” and then leave it to people’s imagination how they are going to use it. Doing so, we tend to break one of the most important rules of communication – we make it about the software not about the people. We own the information, they merely borrow it.

By turning things around and solving a real-life classroom scenario, challenge, problem, idea people suddenly own the solution. They recognise themselves in the picture – “Hey, that’s me”!

Teachers are a very pragmatic lot and love to borrow good stuff. Give’em a good one in Moodle and they will come! If a science teacher has a great solution using Moodle for a problem or idea her class and say, an English teacher sees it and ‘gets it’ – you can bet the English teacher will at least try or ask how to go about it. And coming from a colleague and a fellow ‘struggler’ is a much more powerful thing than coming from the school’s main Moodle peddler like me. The bigger the struggler the more potent the message, even at the subconscious level (“If she can do that I reckon I can do that too!”).

‘Classroom solutions (with software)’ versus ‘Software solutions (in classroom)’. I know which one a regular chalkie would go for and why. Do you?